Negative Urgency and Impulsivity Predict Bulimia in College Women

Certain characteristics are present in people with eating and food issues. One trait is that of impulsivity. Although impulsivity is multidimensional, one component of this behavior, negative urgency (NU), was of interest to Sarah Fischer of the Department of Psychology at the University of Georgia. Fischer chose to focus on NU in a recent study designed to assess eating behaviors in college women. NU is believed to be a primary factor that contributes to the onset and maintenance of risky and addictive behaviors, such as substance use and eating issues. Additionally NU has been shown to be a maladaptive coping strategy for some people and occurs when people engage in immediate coping patterns that are rewarded with negative outcomes. Women entering college are under an immense amount of pressure and those with pre-existing maladaptive coping strategies are especially vulnerable to behaviors that can result in negative outcomes such as such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa (NV). Therefore, Fischer selected 355 female students for her study and evaluated them at the beginning and end of their first semester in college.

Fischer assessed the women’s eating patterns and found that those with high levels of NU at Time 1 were more likely to engage in binge eating at Time 2 than those with little or no NU. Fischer also discovered that NU and expectations of thinness predicted purging behaviors at Time 2. She also noticed that the women with higher rates of NU and thinness-prone attitudes engaged in more frequent purging behaviors than those with moderate expectations of thinness or low levels of NU. Fischer believes that her study is among the first to demonstrate such a robust link between NU and fluctuating patterns of bulimic behaviors. The results of this study suggest that expectation of thinness could be a focus of future intervention and prevention treatment efforts. Fischer added, “In sum, baseline NU and eating expectancies were directly associated with future binge eating, and NU moderated the effects of thinness/restricting expectancies on increases in levels of purging.”

Fischer, S., Peterson, C. M., McCarthy, D. (2012). A prospective test of the influence of negative urgency and expectancies on binge eating and purging. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029323

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  • Dianna


    August 10th, 2012 at 10:59 AM

    In college today, and really just about anywhere that you go, there is such a pressure for girls and wome to be thin that it is no surprise that more and more of them are resorting to these kinds of destructive habits to try to measure up to society standards for beauty are. Although I don’t understand all of the mental issues behind it all because I have always been pretty thin myself, there is a constant need to protray yourself as “perfect” although I’m not sure who we are listening to anymore to tell us what that ideal really is. The point is we place a whole lot of pressure on ourselves and then we let others get to us too, so we are literally concentraing on the most horrible things that we could all for the hope of living up to what others think that we should be.

  • jake


    August 10th, 2012 at 12:42 PM

    hmm..I find myself eating a lot more when Im hurrying my meal or have little time to stay at the dining slow and i eat a suficient and healthy amount.sister is always talking about slow and youll eat right, eat fast and you are harming yourself..guess little sister s right after all!

  • Beth


    August 10th, 2012 at 3:17 PM

    I know that many college campuses have counseling services and programs to help address the needs of young men and women who are having issues with food, but I have to wonder sometimes whether there are many of them actually using these services? It sounds like many of them try to go it alone and most of the time this becomes a situation that most of them don’t exactly deal with very well.

  • Eliza


    August 10th, 2012 at 6:19 PM

    As a college senior, I can tell you are spot on Beth! Seeking help is often seen as a sign of weakness and that of course, is to be avoided! Youngsters have this skewed in their minds. Sometimes I feel old as a senior but most girls actually harm themselves in the pursuit of getting ‘better’!

  • Beth


    August 11th, 2012 at 4:17 AM

    See Eliza, I knew that there were some college women reading who would be honest about what this whole issue boils down to.
    You and I both know that having bulimia in no way whatsoever is ever a way for them to get “better”. What is this better anyway? Thinner? More in control of something that they have never felt any sort of control over?
    I can understand that asking for help could be viewed as weak, but what I think plays even more influence is that fact that most of the women your age and sometimes even older really don’t want the help. I think that so many of them (and myself at times, I admit) have gotten all caught up in this whole harmful cycle of feeling like this is what we have to be in order for someone to love us and for us to be accepted by society. And sadly I think that this keeps so many women and men too who know that there is help available from reaching out and getting that help because for them most part they are not ready to change and give up that control.

  • leah k

    leah k

    August 12th, 2012 at 4:27 AM

    I am so afraid of what will happen when I move back into my dorm in a few weeks.
    Last year was my first year in college and I was so afraid of gaining that dreaded freshman fifteen that a lot of us took up purging to try to keep that weight away.
    It makes me sick to look back on that and think how easy it was to get sucked into that, all the sorority sisters were doing it, and I never gained that weight- in fact, we all lost.
    And now I know I really have lost because I can’t hardly eat anymore even at home without feeling this need to throw up.
    I want to tell my parents but I am so asahmed. They worked so hard so that I would have the chance to go to college and this was what I wasted my entire orst year on.

  • Stephanie


    August 13th, 2012 at 4:13 AM

    Too many people think that the bingeing and purgeing cycle is nothing but a fad but for many of these young girls it becomes so habitual that they find it hard to stop and experience a great deal of physical harm as a result of continually harming their bodies in this way. If we don’t stop this trend toward more and more girls getting caught up in this cycle of an eating disorder we are going to see a whole generation of young women with irreaprable physical and mental harm, and I personally want more for this generation of women than for them to constantly having to continue to worry about these superficial things.

  • CN


    August 13th, 2012 at 7:31 PM

    I always have this sense of urgency in everything I do.whether it is eating or completing an assignment i am always in a hurry.It has always been this way for me since my childhood and i have never felt it is harmful to me fact it keeps me from procrastinating. should I still be concerned? I eat a healthy amount and am a healthy individual in general.

    – a concerned 23 year old girl

  • Avery Neal, MA, LPC

    Avery Neal, MA, LPC

    August 14th, 2012 at 9:46 AM

    This is very interesting research. It ties together an impulsive type of personality trait with the desire to be thin at a time when the pressure to be thin is arguably at its highest. I think many women turn to these types of behaviors when there is so much direct competition to be thin, as there is on a college campus. This study gives insight into what separates some women from actually going through with bulimic behaviors and women who do not.

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